Beware The Return Of Bad Habits
Just when it seemed like we thought we'd seen the last of them, San Jose's worst habits returned over the past week.
Hockey pundits love to say "Here they go again" when it comes to the San Jose Sharks, and really, it's kind of hard to blame them. The team has both been a model of consistent excellence and disappointment over the past decade. While fans of, say, the Florida Panthers would beg and plead for just a taste of some of that success, it's also makes it easy to get hyper-critical. And it's even easier to get that sinking feeling when the Sharks start exhibiting the worst of their bad habits.
FTF went into some detail about why this season's blistering start wasn't the house of cards that last season's was, and while that still applies, the cold hard truth is that the Sharks have a history of bad habits. For the past week or so, those have re-appeared just in time for pundits to say "Here they go again." The scary thing is that they're right. Or at least, they have the potential to be right.
What's most maddening about these habits is that they're not caused by lack of skill or talent or speed or any of those other things that only elite athletes have. These stem from plain old-fashioned bone-headedness.
For the first month of the 2013-14 season, the Sharks didn't just beat their opponents, they demolished them. The statistics and the eye-tests both supported that, and it was unrealistic to think that they could maintain that pace for the course of an 82-game season. Slumps happen, and elite teams only allow those slumps to wreak minimal havoc on their season. That's why the past week's slump has been masked by overtime points, and even if a shootout goal or a non-blown call had gone their way, there's no denying that bad habits have crept into San Jose's game.
Halfway through October, I remarked to a fellow longtime fan that the Sharks weren't just fast skaters, they were quick to pucks in all three zones. That seemed to be the biggest difference between this year's squad and previous teams. The defense didn't give opposing forecheckers much time, the breakout transitioned with speed and efficiency, and the team was quick to "create chaos" (using the words of Brent Burns). In the offensive zone, the forwards kept their feet moving, ensuring that the cycle wasn't just repetition along the boards but generating opportunities for creative playmaking.
While that's still been there in spurts -- and make no mistake, things could be much, much worse -- the general brain fartiness of the team's play over the past week is concerning. This is the evil twin brother of the Sharks: slow, repetitive, and, at times, stupid. It's been the hallmark of how to slow down or stop the Sharks despite all the high-end talent -- simply push them until they stop skating and fall victim to their own patterns. I think we all hoped that the WAY this season started, more so than the result, would mean that these habits were in the past. I'm sure I'm not the only one that got a little bit of a sinking feeling when these blips showed up.
Perhaps part of the solution is having a player on each line that pushes the pace, such as Burns moving to forward and Raffi Torres' impact upon joining the club. By playing a speedy north-south game with a dash of physicality, it set the tone for the rest of the line and trickled down the lineup. Injuries certainly have been a problem thus far in the early season, but the loss of Burns seems to have been a marker for when these things started to creep in. And as good as it is to see Martin Havlat back in the lineup, I would have rather had Torres return simply to have a better
If this goes beyond just a one-week slip and truly becomes a case of reverting back to the worst of the Sharks, then it doesn't matter if the team's forward corps are deeper or that Antii Niemi continues to his strong play from last season: it'll end in tears. However, this could be a blessing in disguise. By revisiting some of the team's historically bad habits over a stretch rather than just a one-game blip, it might serve as a reminder that the difference between elite and mediocre is truly thin. And that, in the end, might be the best lesson over the long haul.